Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Since February 22, 2019, Algerians have mounted massive protests in cities across Algeria. From the wind-swept streets of the seaport city of Oran to the tree-lined boulevards of the capital Algiers, protesters have marched, danced, sang and chanted slogans, ranging from El-djazair, hurra wa dimukratiyya! (Algeria, free and democratic!) to Hadha elchaab la yourid, Bouteflika wa Said! (The people don’t want Bouteflika and Said!). Algerians are calling on the 82-year-old Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to rescind his decision to seek a fifth term in the upcoming April 18 elections and step down from power.

In late February, similar patterns of demonstrations took place in other cities, including Annaba, Bejaia, Oran, Setif and Tizi Ouzou. Internationally, Algerians protested at strategically selected locations: at Place des Nations in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva and in Paris, where protesters took over the busy Place de la République and waved signs such as FLN Dégage! (FLN Get Out!) and brandishing Amazigh and Algerian flags. With the largely state-controlled national media censoring coverage of these protests, it was not until the fifth day of demonstrations that journalists and television channels—state-owned and private—were permitted to begin reporting on the protests.

The Algerian political elite has either downplayed the demonstrations or expressed calculated support for the protesters through carefully worded rhetoric—adopting a patronizing posture toward protesters without responding to their demands. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has affirmed the right of Algerians to protest, but only if they do so through peaceful means; during a parliamentary session he appeared to ominously compare the protests in Algeria to the onset of political instability that eventually overwhelmed Syria.

When approximately 100 journalists in Algiers staged a collective sit-in protest, however, dozens of them were arbitrarily arrested by security forces—all of which occurred in the aptly named Place de la Liberté de la Presse (Freedom of Press Square). Elsewhere in Algiers, protesters gathered at Place Audin and began marching along Rue Didouche Mourad toward the presidential palace. Security forces intervened and fired tear gas, but protesters continued to march undeterred, renewing their calls for Bouteflika to step down.

The octogenarian Bouteflika has ruled the country since 1999 but has been plagued by recurrent health issues, traveling frequently to France and Switzerland for medical checks and treatments. Since suffering a stroke and becoming wheelchair-bound in 2013, the president has made rare public appearances, fueling widespread speculation that he is no longer be capable of leading the country. Young Algerians can only recall seeing Bouteflika on the evening television news or in print media.

Bouteflika’s re-election bid is backed by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), Algeria’s ruling party since independence from France in 1962, and supported by businesses, other political parties and trade union organizations. Opposition parties are fragmented and unable to garner substantive electoral support—a state of affairs that many attribute to the FLN’s monopoly on political power as well as a certain reverence for the FLN for spearheading the anticolonial struggle that won Algeria its independence.

If formal politics entails the parties, policies, institutions and ruling bodies through which governmental power is exercised, the realm of the political entails the activities enacted to radically disrupt a monolithic politics. By distinguishing between politics and the political in this way, the Algerian demonstrations can be understood as a protest against politics itself. As Miriam Ticktin notes, “Radical change is the result of political action, not politics.”[1] While calling for Bouteflika’s resignation has been a focal point of demonstration, the protests are more broadly a political contestation against a byzantine, status-quo politics upheld by an elite that is out of touch with the worsening realities in the country.

Protesting Politics As Usual

News coverage and commentary about the mass protests in print and online media—Algerian and non-Algerian alike—typically frame the protests through three principal frames.

First, the protests are framed through their apparent novelty, where public discontent in Algeria is either generalized as a rarity or celebrated as a long-awaited awakening from a state of political disengagement attributed to authoritarian laws banning public protest.

Second, the protests are depicted as coming out of nowhere, with many expressing surprise at the unprecedented scale and speed with which Algerians are being mobilized across social divisions and overturning the taboo on political expression.

Third, the scale and success of the protests are attributed to the twin forces of social media and youth, where anonymous calls to mobilize posted on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are seen as especially accessible to and popular among younger Algerians. The decentralization of protest beyond the confines of organizational hierarchy, as well as the fact that no single figure or group has claimed leadership, facilitates the idea that protests could materialize organically at any given moment and location.

Framing the protests largely as an unforeseen populist revolt by an undifferentiated and youthful mass against a narrowly defined electoral issue—Bouteflika’s decision to seek a fifth consecutive term—hinders a more expansive understanding of the complexities and potentialities of the protests beyond the immediate moment. The protests did emerge in part in response to elements of Algerian social life, but they need to be situated in a broader context of African, Mediterranean and transnational political-economic dynamics.

Revolutionary protest against politics as usual is neither new nor unprecedented in Algeria. Algerians have participated in expressions of public discontent at numerous historical junctures before and after the 1962 establishment of the independent Algerian state, and those protests have moved well beyond questioning electoral politics. During the colonial era, tribal groups, nationalist parties and anticolonial organizations mounted many protests and revolts of varying intensity across Algeria.[2] The Setif and Guelma massacre on May 8, 1945, for example, occurred after Algerians gathered joyously on the streets to celebrate the end of World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany. When those assembled simultaneously called for Algerian independence, French colonial forces retaliated with disproportionate force. As demonstrated by historiographic work and in the autobiographical accounts of Zohra Drif and Elaine Mokhtefi, the genealogy of revolutionary protest in Algeria cannot be considered apart from its political manifestations in the colonial era. Those experiences have shaped the contours of the Algerian revolutionary consciousness upon which subsequent generations of Algerians continue to draw.[3]

Since the 2000s, Algerians have taken to the streets to mount tens of thousands of micro-riots—small, localized demonstrations during which participants make very specific claims on the government. From 2010 to 2012, massive demonstrations against status-quo politics took place across Algeria. Those protests arose out of widespread discontent over rising food costs, inflation, unemployment, corruption and nepotism—the same issues energizing the 2019 protests. Moreover, sporadic and localized protests take place beyond the coastal and metropolitan centers of Algeria. The oil-producing desert south has become an epicenter of routine strikes and social unrest by residents and oil workers, who periodically protest peacefully against rising energy costs and unemployment. Yet localized protests in the south are seldom registered as politically or nationally consequential due to their smaller scale and the southern region’s relative insularity from the coastal and mountainous north. The Algerian government often quells such localized dissent through quick-fix solutions such as payoffs, vouchers and wage increases. Those responses demonstrate how resistance can be transiently co-opted, at least until the next cycle of unrest resurfaces.

All this points to the fact that active political engagement through protest is not unprecedented in Algeria and that protests occur through distinct spatio-temporal frames. Those frames range from the localized and more routine demonstrations of the south to the more eventful protests of the densely populated urban north likely to garner national and international attention.

Triggering Cumulative Grievances

The collective anger directed at the FLN regime followed decades of economic stagnation, rising unemployment, endemic corruption and labor market segmentation. That anger was not merely over corrupt electoral politics. The cumulative demands, aspirations and grievances of generations of Algerians are being channeled into a composite protest movement attempting to shift, by collective political action, a static and corrupt politics that has refused to adapt. The protests are not unprecedented in the manner of an awakening; rather, they have emerged over broader long-standing and cumulative tensions and frustrations over national stagnancy. Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek a fifth term only helped to ignite those protests.

These cumulative demands, aspirations and grievances are often discounted in discussions about how and why Algeria appears to have been relatively unaffected by the popular revolutions that swept through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011. To make sense of the so-called Algerian exception, commentators have offered explanations ranging from the notion that Algeria’s oil wealth secures its capacity to contain major political instability, to the idea that the FLN still commands a considerable amount of respect from the population. Further, Bouteflika is said to remain popular among older generations of Algerians, who remember him as the leader who brought the bloody Civil War of 1991-2002 to an end. That war, waged between competing Islamist groups and the FLN government, claimed more than 200,000 lives.

These explanations of Algerian exceptionalism, however, miss how Algeria did not, in fact, remain unaffected. Oil and gas prices in Algeria plummeted following the Arab uprisings, causing greater economic instability and fueling the cycle of strikes and protests that have regularly rocked the south. The 2010-2012 protests may have been swiftly and forcefully subdued by the police, but the public’s collective memory of such police brutalities persists. Economic measures introduced in the wake of the 2010-2012 protests, such as subsidies, payoffs and increased public spending, were short-term solutions to placate the population and did not reduce the unemployment rate or improve the quality of living. Thus, while there were no major structural changes to formal political institutions in Algeria following the Arab uprisings, Algerian socio-political life was affected in ways that helped shape the dynamics of current dissent and protest.

Youthful Grievances

Algeria’s mass protests have strong youth participation and feature widespread use of social media to communicate and organize. But the mobilization of youth was driven both by grievances similar to those shared by the wider population and by grievances specific to their social and economic conditions.

Narratives of the youth-centric nature of the protests began to circulate early in demonstrations. Youth discontent was visibly manifested on the fifth day of demonstrations through a wave of student-led protests. Students organized those protests through social media, urging others to skip classes and assemble in demonstrations on university campuses, at educational institutions and in public spaces across the country. Contingents of students marched in downtown Algiers, while at Ben Aknoun University in western Algiers, students obstructed traffic and constructed a makeshift coffin draped in the Algerian flag with a photo of Bouteflika strategically placed on top. In a clip aired by Berber Television that rapidly went viral on social media, a young Algerian student eloquently describes the elite’s corruption, inertia and apathy, reminding viewers that the government is outnumbered by the demographic majority of the rest of the population.

Some 70 percent of the Algerian population of 41 million are under the age of 30, with more than 25 percent of working-age youth unemployed. Youth and national unemployment are aggravated by the country’s over-dependence on the hydrocarbon industry, which is dominated by state-owned firms and largely sequestered to the oil-producing regions of southern Algeria. Oil and gas exports, however, have been drastically affected by falling prices in recent years. Because the Algerian economy relies on a fluctuating oil and gas industry where revenues are either poured back into the hydrocarbons sector or spent on costly imports, the unemployment rate and wage stagnation faced by the general population cannot be adequately tackled unless the lack of export diversification and job-creation initiatives are first addressed.

Younger generations of Algerians, in particular, are faced with limited economic prospects upon graduating with advanced degrees from universities. Their ability to find jobs that fit their professional training and occupational specialty is severely limited by a weakened labor market overshadowed by the energy sector. Most younger Algerians are either chronically unemployed or working in low-paying jobs concentrated in the non-energy sector with little financial security and scant social mobility. The promise of socio-economic uplift that a university education is imagined to guarantee remains unfulfilled.

Youth and student protestors are thus mobilizing against university fee increases, recurrent patterns of rising youth unemployment and limited opportunities for socio-economic mobility. No longer are the FLN’s autocratic politics uncontested.

Looking Ahead

Many streets, monuments and parks in Algeria are named after revolutionary martyrs, guerilla fighters and nationalist icons, providing a rich tapestry of collective memory where Algeria’s revolutionary history is materially inscribed into the spatial geography of the country. Place Audin in Algiers, for example, is named after the French mathematician and anticolonial activist Maurice Audin, whose 1957 disappearance was revealed in 2018 as death-by-torture at the hands of French forces. Rue Didouche Mourad, a major commercial street in Algiers, pays homage to one of the six founding members of the FLN who was killed early in battle. In Oran, protesters gathered at Rue Larbi Ben M’hidi, a street named after the prominent Algerian leader whose mysterious death while in French custody transformed him into a revolutionary icon.

Algerian protesters are cognizant of and draw upon exemplary precedents within the rich historical tradition of revolutionary protest central to Algerian social life. The geography and iconography of protest collide: Staging the protests in places suffused with FLN revolutionary iconography carries symbolic counterweight and is not incidental, as spaces saturated with old guard revolutionary symbolism are now being remapped as countercultural spaces of resistance against, paradoxically, the very same elite that had secured Algeria its independence.

The primary concern, however, is not how this round of protests compares with previous uprisings, but rather what potentialities these protests offer in light of how Algerian collective memory and revolutionary praxis are being transformed by the dynamics of the protests. In this view, protest is not a means to an end, but a process that is transformative, causative, impactful and capable of reconfiguring socio-political relations. Instead of assessing protest in terms of its end-result successes or failures, much like in the evaluation of policy, it is more productive to ask: How are protests reconfiguring Algerian social relations and networks as they are taking place? What alliances, connections, revelations and emotions are being discovered, forged or strengthened through the very process of protesting? What collective imaginaries for transformative change are being created, renewed or circulated? Such a view takes protest itself as a powerfully transformative process capable of refashioning socio-political relations beyond the place and duration of assembly.

It is unclear, however, if the protests will lead to any substantive revolutionary change in Algeria. They may pave the way for a new political future or end up being suppressed by security forces—any number of outcomes is possible. Despite Bouteflika’s announcement that he will no longer seek a fifth term, protesters show no signs of stopping. Algerians are cognizant that politics in the country does not begin and end with Bouteflika; power is wielded by a shadowy circle of army generals, legislators, politicians and loyal party nationalists hidden from public scrutiny.

But what can be seen is remarkable: Algerians across generations and social divisions mobilizing peacefully, singing, chanting, dancing and brandishing slogans with conviction, humor, wit, eloquence and creativity. They are gathering on the streets, connecting with one another, exchanging ideas, building collective memories and holding space for the generation of new solidarities, friendships and intimacies. They are deploying technology and social media in diversified ways while drawing upon the Algerian people’s rich historical tradition of revolutionary protest, forging new forms of political consciousness.

While police and state violence against protesters remains a stark reality, the moment of protest itself is revolutionary. The message that protesters are conveying to the elite is loud and clear: Enough is enough, no more empty promises—the Algerian people want concrete change.

 


Endnotes

[1] Miriam Ticktin, Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), p. 19.

[2] Patricia Lorcin, Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria (London: I.B.Tauris, 1995).

[3] See Benjamin Stora, Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Zohra Drif, Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2017); and Elaine Mokhtefi, Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers (New York: Verso, 2018).

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